Brazil comes to Berkeley with Guinga, Spok, Margareth Menezes, more

Samba and MPB star Margareth Menezes performs at BrasArte’s Lavagem celebration Sept. 3.

Berkeley is the center of an extraordinary convergence this weekend, and I’m not talking about Amber Cummings’ quixotic “No to Marxism in America” protest and her motley collection of camp followers. Rather, the city is the beneficiary of the extravagant array of musicians drawn to California Brazil Camp’s 20th annual season at Cazadero.

The two-week program started on Sunday, and stages across Berkeley this weekend will be inhabited by Brazil Camp faculty, including some of the country’s most celebrated artists. The brilliant composer, guitarist and vocalist Guinga teams up with award-winning Italian pianist/composer Stefania Tallini Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory.

The CJC gig has become an annual tradition for Guinga, whose songs have been recorded by Brazil’s biggest stars, including Elis Regina, Clara Nunes, Nelson Gonçalves, and Miúcha. Ivan Lins, a bona fide pop star and prolific songwriter himself, essentially launched the Velas label to release Guinga’s 1991 debut album Simples e Absurdo, the first in a series of albums that eventually allowed Guinga to give up his Rio de Janeiro dental practice to compose, perform and teach full time.

Guinga wasn’t at the Brazil Camp faculty’s Yerba Buena Gardens Festival concert last Sunday afternoon, but many of his fellow Cazaderians were on hand to offer a taste of what Berkeley has in store this week. São Paulo-based Alessandro Penezzi, who’s taught at Brazil Camp every summer since 2010, opened the Brazil in the Garden concert with several breathtaking solo guitar pieces, and on Sunday afternoon he’s performing at the Hillside Club with Berkeley flutist Jane Lenoir, celebrating the release of their new album (with Brian Rice on pandeiro and special guests).


The highlight of the Brazil in the Gardens show was a thrilling set by saxophonist/composer Spok, who leads a turbo-charged frevo orchestra in the northeastern city of Recife. While the music of his native state of Pernambuco isn’t nearly as well known as neighboring Bahia’s, it’s as rhtyhmically rich and sumtpusouly melodic, and he offered a brief course in frevo’s three major stylistic currents.

Saxophonist and composer Spok is a master of the turbo-charged frevo tradition from Recife. He performs with the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at Casa de Cultura on Sunday. Photo by Edson Acioli.

On Sunday evening, Spok teams up with trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s 17-piece Electric Squeezebox Orchestra at BrasArte/Casa da Cultura, reprising a collaboration that first came together last year at Doc’s Lab (where the ESO resumes its long-running Sunday residency on Sept. 3).

“The Doc’s Lab show was packed to the gills,” says vocalist Sandy Cressman, whose recent album Entre Amigos features a song she wrote and recorded with the SpokFrevo Orquestra. “Conceição Demasceno, the owner of BrasArte and a champion for spreading Brazilian culture in the Bay Area, was at the club and expressed a desire to present the same show at her place on San Pablo at Hearst.”

Sunday’s concert also features the Recife dance company Artefolia and the great American frevo dancer, Jae Shin. The ESO’s ranks will include noted Brazilophilic players such as reed expert Harvey Wainapel, saxophonist/flutist Mary Fettig, guitarist Brian Moran, drummer Phil Thompson, and trombonist Natalie Cressman. For Jekabson, the opportunity to play Spok’s music again was irresistible.

“It was a crazy amazing show at Doc’s Lab, with dancing and a ton of Brazilian music fans,” he says. “When they wanted to do more, we said yes please. He’s an incredible musician, and it’s such great music. There are some really challenging, super fast pieces. You can’t sight read the charts. That’s what’s fun about this gig. It really tests your reading abilities to the upmost, but in a fun way.”


Spok’s performance at BrasArte is a booking coup, but the Casa da Cultura outdoes itself on Sept. 3 with its annual Brazilian Day/Lavagem Festival featuring samba star Margareth Menezes performing on the outside stage after the Lavagem Ceremony at 3 p.m. The indoor stage hosts Rio-born Seattle-based pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto and vocalists Sandy Cressman and Claudia Villela.

Hailing from Salvador da Bahia, Menezes is a superstar who has scored a series of hits over the past three decades, including her collaboration with on the 2003 hit “Passe Em Casa” from the classic album Tribalistas. She’s also performing a show with her Brazilian band at The Chapel on Sept. 2.

The pervasive influence of Brazilian music isn’t emanating only from Cazadero. Berkeley guitarist and arranger Tony Corman’s Morechestra performs at Ashkenaz Friday with Moscow-born vocalist Masha Campagne, who’s devoted herself to the Brazilian songbook. And over at the Back Room on Monday the ensemble Kill Bossa, which primary inspiration from the Tropicalia movement of the late 1960s, plays on a double bill with the fabulous Berkeley-raised vocalist Karina Deniké.

Down the road, the Berkeley Choro Ensemble performs with Rio’s Duo Violão Brasil (Rogério Souza and Edinho Gerber) at the Hillside Club on Sept. 8, and presents the Berkeley Festival of Choro at Freight & Salvage on Oct. 25 with Choro-das-3, Léa Freire and Amilton Godoy Duo.

At a moment when we’re assailed by tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, it’s essential to embrace sounds that embody the beauty of our better natures.